“Who saw the movie The Matrix? The Matrix was a bangin’ movie to me. And the reason why I appreciated it so much, was because- remember at the end when Neo realises his potential? He started to see the binary code. Remember that? The whole world.”
– the wisdom of Lauryn Hill. “Why You Don’t Know Real Love.”
A Secret Birthday Party for Jesus.
That’s what the small gathering of
missionaries workers was up to on Christmas Day. A Christmas pageant for the children followed by a feast fit to celebrate the King. The national believers were catering the event, because–hey, they need the money and don’t have the right to celebrate this holiday!
I was going to go. I was going to swallow what I figured was pride. I signed up dutifully for the meal, picked out my outfit, and started psyching myself out for the event: “Yes! Fellow
missionaries workers! This is going to be really really really the best!”
But I knew from the knot in my stomach that it was not going to be easy to sit down to a meal prepared by my national brothers and sisters because they did not have the legal right to celebrate in their own country. I know my fellow
missionaries workers were trying to ‘bless them with work’ but it didn’t seem the occasion for such a thing.
I was picking out my Christmas sweater and that little voice in my brain was saying, “But…”
And my mouth was saying, “Shut up, YOU! We’re going to smile and be happy and join everybody else in the stinking community because we need to learn to conform!”
Long story short, as the hour of the party approached that Christmas morn, I worked more and more feverishly at my desk. I painted and scribbled and occasionally looked over my shoulder at the outfit I was going to wear to Our Christmas Celebration.
Eventually, after much pacing and praying and lecturing, I gave up. I put the Christmas clothes away and chose an all-black outfit, more appropriate for mourning. I briefly considered going to the party in black but quickly dismissed the idea. If I couldn’t will myself to go cheerily, I would not go. I would not disrupt the festivities with my dour presence.
Instead I sat down at my desk, relieved, and started writing cards to friends and family. After an hour or so I had finished. I tucked them into my canvas bag with my wallet and a notebook, put my phone in my pocket, and meandered over to the post box.
I dropped the letters off and took the long way home. I was lost in my thoughts, dawdling along on the sidewalk next to a major boulevard.
I couldn’t have made an easier target, of course.
These young men were professionals, but it could just as easily have been Oliver Twist on his first foray. I was a sitting duck.
There were two of them: one to drive the motorbike slowly and the other to snatch my bag and rejoin his croney. It was over in the blink of an eye.
Shocked and unbalanced by the yank on my shoulder (the straps of the canvas bag snapped), I stumbled forward into a run, starting to shout. “Thieves! Thieves!”
I’ve never been known for my quick reflexes, and they were disappearing in the distance before I took a second breath.
Heart beating out of my chest, I stopped running and looked around. There was no-one. The cars continued to drive on without stopping.
I started to laugh.
“Thank you, God, for helping me to empathize so thoroughly with the downtrodden.”
I was completely powerless. I could not return home without my keys. I thanked God that I had my phone in my pocket and very little cash in my bag. I thanked God that I had only one debit card in that wallet. I thanked God that I had left my papers at home.
Then I called one of the
missionaries workers I knew and explained the situation. I had given her the extra key to my flat so I figured I could get back in and then change the locks in the afternoon.
Only God had a different plan.
I showed up at the gathering, loitering in the courtyard like the creepy loner I was, and waited for my friend to come out. The others greeted me cheerily. I knew I was always welcome there, which is why I had tried so hard to attend that day. They weren’t mean, just… Well, people, I guess. They were just people. Fallible, like me.
My friend and I rode across town and she pulled out the stops to cheer me up a bit: coffee from back home and treats she’d received recently in a package. We feasted on that, and prayed. Then we visited with a nearby neighbor and had tea, biscuits, and prayer there, too. And I got to tell my sob story, which was getting funnier by the minute.
Then I took a taxi home. (By ‘take a taxi home’ I mean stand out on several different street corners, searching and waving, consider taking a bus, look for a more likely corner, search and wave again.)
It was nightfall by the time I got back to my neighborhood.
I went to the door. Key didn’t fit. Oh, no. Oh, no. Wrong key? Did this fit into my old lock which had frozen up and had had to be changed?!
Needless to say, I spent some many moments slumped against the wall. Then I tried to pray that key into the lock. Nothing doing. Not God’s plan for my Christmas.
I went back out into the street and entered a neighbor’s home. A relative was visiting, and they were eating cake. I told my story again, this time with the added detail of the rescued key not working. We laughed and laughed. Cake crumbs dropped all over.
“It’s too late for a locksmith to come, right?” I asked.
“Yes, we can call one for you to come tomorrow. You can stay the night here.”
“No, no.” I refused. I was supposed to be hosting a Christmas evening event at my home (ha!) which was going to need to be cancelled, or relocated, or something. I texted with some
missionary worker friends to find out where they were. They were at a gift-swap party but they’d be home at 10 pm or so, which was soon.
The neighbor’s husband walked me to another friend’s home. My friend (also known as my archnemesis, but we had reconciled) invited me into her home let me borrow pyjamas. Can’t get more renconciled than that. I told the whole story again, from the beginning, this time adding in the cake break at the neighbors. As the day went on the story seemed to get better and better.
My host brought out cheese and fruit and chocolate when a knock came at the door. Who could that be?
More friends! Carolers, one of them in a Santa Claus suit! They made up the small group I had intended to host at my place, determined to see me. They brought a bottle of bubbly, too. We made quite a jolly party.
I told the story again with relish, indicating my black garments with a dramatic sweep.
As I sat down to cede the floor to someone else, I realized this was the Best Christmas Ever.
And that’s when I think,
missionaries workers aren’t so bad after all. God is good. There’s something special about a person who will host you after prolonged conflict. Definitely something special about that person’s God. Imagine John Winthrop inviting Roger Williams over for a slumber party. It’s that kind of special.
So thank God for all of that, for the unique celebration of Jesus at a very strange time in my life.
missionaries workers out there celebrating a birthday, I leave you with this advice: Let God be God, and order your day’s festivities. And this poem as a tribute:
“Be Beautiful, Noble, Like the Antique Ant”
Be beautiful, noble, like the antique ant,
Who bore the storms as he bore the sun,
Wearing neither gown nor helmet,
though he was archbishop and soldier:
Wore only his own flesh
Salute characters with gracious dignity:
Though what these are is left to
Your own terms. Exact: the universe is
Not so small but these will be found
Somewhere. Exact: they will be found
Speak with great moderation: but think
With great fierceness, burning passion:
Though what the ant thought
No annuals reveal, no his descendants
Break the seal.
Trace the tracelessness of the ant,
Every ant has reached this perfection.
As he comes, so he goes,
Flowing as water flows,
Essential but secret like a rose.
José García Villa